On Being a Photographer [Part 2]

Date Published: 9/19/2011
Category: Straight Takes

Let’s talk about the important of the subject and about the importance of the photographer as a person. 

What do i photograph?

A  photographer’s first decision is what to photograph. Your curiosity, fascination and enthusiasm for a subject can be communicated to others through the pictures you take of it. Many people enjoy photographing objects and situations created by nature, such as landscapes, flowers, insects, still life. When they approach these subjects as a nature lover, their aim is to photograph them with as much authenticity as possible. You likely to find these subjects easy to work with, but a lot harder compare with other subjects.  

Take for example, people. You can be fairly detached yourself from a flower, but you properly will find it almost impossible to be neutral working with a happy child or an overly crying child.  Your personal experiences and emotions tend to blur your objectivity. You are interpreting the subject and the situation from the moment you see it. And, if you are to photograph the subject at all, you must respond quickly. There isn’t time for you to analysis.

As far as I am concerned, taking photographs is a means of understanding that which cannot be separated from other means of visual expression.
~ Henri Cartier-Bresson 

You make the picture and take what you get is an image that not only communicate true to life about the subject but also tells something of who you are, only you would have taken that picture in that way.  So, the photographer matters. Your reaction to a subject determines the setting of the image of the subject environment.   A photograph is usually as good a description of who’s behind the lens as whom or what is in front of it.       

So let’s talk about the basic principles of subject selection. 

Basic principles of subject selection

This is an exercise you can try.  During your quiet time, as the thought occurs to you, is to compile a list of anything that really interests you. In other words, write a list of subjects which fascinate you without regards to photography. What could inflame your passion and curiosity over a long period of time? After you have exhausted the list, you begin to cut it down by asking yourself four questions:

Is it visual? 
Is it practical? 
Is the subject about which I know enough? 
Is it interesting to others?

This is a tricky one, but it is worth asking yourself. Here the issue is of your intended audience, which might be small and the issue of subjecting to public appeal.

The subject matter you select must fire your enthusiasm and curiosity for at least the length of time it will take to produce a meaningful body of work; as opposed to words and remain continuously accessible so that you can return time and again to the same topic whenever you wish or have time.

After years of talking to photographers at exhibitions and festivals, in various medium, and the common denominator among all their approaches to the taking of pictures is that they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about their subject matter and they plan ahead of actual shooting.

Every artist was at first an amateur.
~ Ralph W. Emerson

Especially  for new photographers, the narrower and more defined the subject matter at the start, the more quickly identified is the “direction in which to aim the camera”. The more pictures are taken, the greater the enthusiasm and knowledge for the subject. The greater your knowledge, the more you want to do justice and this increases the scope and depth of the pictures. So the process feeds on itself.

So it is important to be rooted in “the thing itself”. If the images are not rooted in the thing itself, then the photographer has not learned anything about the real world. He or she can only justify the images by reference to self:

Before long, this can leads to unsuccessful effort to justify the most clichéd, shallow work. My respond to all those words about self is that these photographers are inviting judgments on themselves as people, not photographers and that’s foolish. And the self thing is shallow, narrow, superficial and illogical.

And there are no standards. What I mean is there can never be any objective benchmarks against which to measure the success or failure of these images. If a person says, “This is how I feel,” you cannot respond, “No! I do not feel that way.”

Mind you, I do not have objections to anyone using photography for personal therapy. That seems a valid use of the medium. What I am saying is that these images will have an audience of only one, the person who made them. Rarely will they have any quality or value to a larger audience.

Photographers  would do the world a favor by diminishing, not amplifying, the role of self and, as much as possible, emphasizing on the subject alone. I am not trying to be funny here.  Many photographers, strongly emphasis commonly on personality, individualism, and I know that the majority of these photographers who encounter these words are anxious to insist upon self as much as on the subject.

When words become unclear, I shall focus on photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence.
~ Ansel Adams

The fact remains is that all photographs, even of the most mundane, unimaginative records of things, are subjective. They are made because of various decisions arising out of the mind of an individual. So it is unavoidable that self will intrude on the picture making process.  It would be impossible to keep it out. But it is not the primarily aim of the images. A unique style is the by-product of visual exploration, not its goal. Personal vision comes only from not aiming at it. Especially, over a long period of time and through many, many images, the self reemerges with even greater strength than the end product.

I once listened to an interview with a great musician. The interviewer asked him to describe a typical day. The musician said he read scores over breakfast, then composed music in the morning, thought about music during the walk, practiced the violin in the afternoon, played in a concert in the evening, met with musician friends to play together, then went to bed dreaming of the violin. The interviewer was thunder-struck: it seemed it is a narrow life. “Yes”, said the musician, “initially my life was becoming narrower and narrower in focus. Then something extraordinary happened. It is as though my music passed through a tiny hole in an hourglass and it has since become broader and broader. Now my music is making connections with every aspect of life”.

In real sense, photographers are photographers one hundred percent of the time. Every thing connects. I always find it fascinating to see short films or low budget films. One can learn if one observes in some of the art movies.  For example in the movie “In the mood for Love”, the dialogue, acting, camera angles, (often the subjects are shot at shallow depth of field), the elements used through out the scenes are minimalist.  Often you notice dialogues (without the show of faces), are use as a representation of the running of the story, and the slow pacing of the movie reflects the mood of the actors and the overall mood of the movie as a whole. And all these can be applied to our own work. Every event contributes to the photographic mill. And scores of learning events are occurring daily. All this new insight is fed back to the subject of the pictures, so it is commonly said that, a photographer is make known through what he or she photographs.

“The secret of photography is the camera takes on the character and personality of the handler. The mind works on the machine.”
A photograph is always seen in some contexts; physical, remembered, imagined.
~ Rashid Elisha